Banned books week highlights censorship

The following story originally appeared in The Torch, the student newspaper of Roosevelt University, on October 9, 2014


On Saturday, Sept. 26, tucked quietly in the back of Logan Square’s City Lit Books, a crowd of roughly 30 men, women and children gathered for a showcase of imagination concocted to indoctrinate the minds of Chicagoans during  National Banned Books Week.Sept. 21 to Sept. 27 was National Banned Books Week.

While Sam Bradwell, a Chicago Public Schools (CPS) parent, plucked away at his upright bass, a raspy cupped trumpet puttered softly as Katherine Larkin read aloud “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

And Deirdre Harrison gave a glimpse into the Iranian revolution. These societal rebels were, in their wiords, “challenging state censorship.”

The American Library Association (ALA) started it back in 1982 with the intention of bringing attention to the harms of censorship on frequently challenged books.

It is part celebration, part social awareness campaign.

All across the country, scholars, teachers, librarians and authors came together to protest and argue that the only bad book is one that suffers from a state-sanctioned embargo.

Chicago’s most recent exposure to censorship took place when Lane Tech College Prep High School suddenly pulled Marjane Satrapi’s 2000 autobiographical graphic novel, “Persepolis,” from its course curriculum in 2013.

The school received serious backlash from parents and civil rights groups that still resonates more than a year later.

“There’s an established protocol for challenging a book. The ALA has all these guidelines of what you’re supposed to do, all these different channels you can go through, and what [they] did was so offensive because they didn’t even know about any of that,” said an angry Bradwell.    “They just sent the guys in and pulled the book from the library. I mean, How many different ways can you do it wrong?”

While Lane Tech has since made the book available for students in its library, “Persepolis” remains absent from the school’s curriculum for, according to CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, Satrapi’s use of, “graphic imagery and language.”

Deidre Harrison’s daughter attended Lane Tech.

And as a parent,Harrison continues to disagree with the school’s move and CPS’ complacency.

Harrison stood before the crowd reading select passages aloud, displaying the scenes for the audience.

“To see a narrative, especially from a girl’s perspective, number one about dress codes, is totally relevant to all of them, and this idea of dress codes reflecting tribes…it’s interesting,” said Harrison. “She’s like, ‘I am religious, but I want to define that for myself,’ so this idea how women, in whatever constructs they are, get to define what that means, what their value is…I think it’s a super relevant narrative. It’s a graphic novel, and there’s not a lot of women-authored graphic novels. Graphic novels are one area where women are doing real interesting stuff.“

At Roosevelt University, English Professor Ji’Hyae Park encourages her students to read “Persepolis” in her ENG 115 class, “Exploring Comics and Film.”

“I chose ‘Persepolis’ because it is a comic that has been adapted into a film successfully, which, therefore, fits into the topic of the course.  Moreover, it’s a great autobiographical comic,” said Park. “While   I do think that comics like ‘Persepolis’ might be more effectively used for certain ages than others in the classroom.  I don’t think it makes sense to ban the book.  From what I’ve read, the images depicting torture are what some people object to. But what they fail to understand is that these are images reflecting a child’s imagination of torture—not a realistic depiction of torture.”

Park also said that she thinks Satrapi is trying to do something different than only show graphic images for their own sake, but instead explore how children attempt to make sense of things that they perhaps do not yet understand.

“She reminds us that even though we try to shield children from violence and torture, they encounter it anyway.  I think it’s better to encounter it in this comic, which doesn’t sensationalize torture, but instead makes readers aware of the politics that make it possible, and how it impacts the everyday lives of people,” said Park.

Restricted access to literary works is certainly nothing new as William Shakespeare, J.D. Salinger, Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne have all been chastised throughout history for conflicting community values and suggestive themes.

Canadian author Cory Doctorow’s young adult novel, “Little Brother,” which encourages readers to challenge authority figures and stresses technological awareness, was recently restricted from Booker T. Washington High School in Pensacola, Fla.

In response, Doctorow and his publisher, Tor Books, sent 200 copies to the school free of charge.

“The brilliant thing about life in the 21st century is that challenging or banning a book just makes it easier to get and all the more intriguing for having been challenged,” Doctorow wrote via email when questioned about the effectiveness of censorship. “If the principal of Washington High wanted to really make sure that every kid in his school wanted to find out just why this book was so dangerous that they shouldn’t be allowed to read it, all he had to do was challenge it.”

Professor Park herself is no stranger to the scrutiny over literary material.

“I did teach a book that was the object of controversy, ‘Blu’s Hanging’ by Lois-Ann Yamanaka, in an upper-level college course on Gender and Sexuality in Asian American literature,” said Park. “The book initially received an award from the Association of Asian American Studies, but it was later rescinded because some people thought it portrayed Filipinos in a racist manner. The way I designed the course, however, was to ‘teach the controversy.’ I intentionally chose books that were divisive and controversial to get students to respond to the literature, but also to understand the academic debates that shape the way literature is publicized and taught…But there is a vast difference between a book like ‘Persepolis’ that is trying to educate readers about the dangers of totalitarian political regimes, as well as the problems of stereotyping an entire people by the deeds of a few in power, than something that sensationalizes torture or violence for its own sake or in an exploitative manner.”